Thursday, August 12, 2004

Big guns coming to woo veterans

By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer

Hours after they hear from President Bush in Cincinnati Monday morning, the Veterans of Foreign Wars will welcome Secretary of State Colin Powell as their banquet speaker.

Powell, a retired four-star general and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, will be the keynote speaker at the VFW's annual convention, which will draw about 15,000 veterans and their families to Cincinnati beginning Saturday.

The presence of both the president and his secretary of state in separate appearances on the same day is a sign of the importance that the Bush-Cheney campaign places on the influence the VFW has on its 2.6 million members and on an even more significant voting bloc - the 26 million Americans who once wore their country's military uniform.

Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and VFW member, accepted the VFW's invitation to come to Cincinnati almost immediately after it was issued.

Kerry will speak Wednesday. The time has not been determined.

The battle for veterans' votes is likely to continue later this month, when an even larger veterans' organization - the 2.7 million-member American Legion - holds its convention in Nashville, Tenn.

"We expect the national spotlight is going to be on us all week long,'' said John Furgess, the Vietnam veteran from Nashville who will be named the VFW's national commander at the Cincinnati convention. "We usually are, every four years.''

The veterans in Cincinnati for a week (Aug. 14-20) are also keen to hear from another Bush administration official - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, a combat veteran of Vietnam, who is scheduled to speak Tuesday.

In recent years, veterans have complained about problems in the VA health-care system, saying that some veterans are waiting for up to a year to see a doctor.

Earlier this year, the VFW went on record in opposition to the Bush administration's VA budget proposal, which would have increased patients' co-payments and created a "user fee'' that the VFW believed would put VA health care out of reach for many veterans.

The VFW and other veterans' organizations have lobbied Congress hard for increases in VA funding. They appear to have succeeded in convincing Congress to drop the proposed user fees and co-payment increases.


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